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The asylum seeker issue: pushing past the myths and fear

The asylum seeker issue: pushing past the myths and fear

“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves, and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights” (John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath)

In Steinbeck’s classic American novel, he tells the tale of a family from Oklahoma who migrate west to California in search of work. Theirs is a family falling apart at the seams, who barely have enough resources to sustain each other. The family members have a variety of shady pasts and flakey temperaments. They are surviving on very little, and are desperate to make a new beginning in the promised land of the West. Yet, Steinbeck’s tale is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, where there are scant resources for everybody, and even the people who are seen to have plenty are struggling. So, as the family moves further and further west, their hopes are driven into the ground as they begin to hear that jobs aren’t in abundance and the life that they had planned out for themselves may just be a distant dream. Along the way, as well as meeting some fine-spirited allies, they encounter extreme prejudice. Hordes of immigrants have moved across the country before them, resulting in an over-supply of labour. Employers have taken advantage of this, promising wages but delivering only a third of what was promised, whilst employing three times as many people. Despite both groups being from the same country, the reaction to the new influx of “Okies” is unwelcome.

As I read the above passage, my mind instantly wandered to the events of this week, where a boat full of over 70 asylum seekers crashed at Christmas Island, killing up to 28 people. Julia Gillard rushed back from her holiday. The Opposition refused to politicise the tragedy, although Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison said that it was “the realisation of our worst fears.” Meanwhile, with more than his usual level of self-smugness (which is saying something), everyone’s favourite conservative journalist Andrew Bolt showed no such self-restraint, calling for the Prime Minister to resign while bodies were still being pulled out of the water. Why had the government not listened to him, he opined, when he had told them time and time again that their asylum seeker policy was “luring people to their deaths“?

Is that what Andrew Bolt seems to think refugees do when they’re facing the prospect of torture, rape and mass persecution in their own countries? Sit around a table and calmly analyse the refugee policy of the country they’re headed to, weighing up whether or not they should flee there, or wait until a more benevolent leader comes into power? Really?

I recall a group of refugees being interviewed 16 or so months into Kevin Rudd’s leadership, and being asked whether or not they were aware of the new policies for asylum seekers that had been introduced by the Labor government, and whether or not that had any bearing on their decision to come. Their reply was pretty simple – no, we weren’t aware, in fact, we left our home country when John Howard was still in power.

And yet, Andrew Bolt and many others in Australia still think that the increase in asylum seekers that we are seeing is a direct result of the “softening” of border protection policies in this country. What these attitudes reveal is an intense desire to be so insular that they completely shut out the reality of what is happening all over the world. More importantly, from a political point of view, it enables parties the opportunity to attempt to provide solutions to problems which in reality, they cannot solve. That’s because the causes of these problems are often outside our direct control.

In 2008, the worldwide number of asylum claims increased by 28%. In this same period, Australia experienced a 19% increase in asylum claims. Europe, which sees the bulk of asylum seeker claims, was the most heavily hit. For example, countries like Italy experienced a 122% increase while Norway experienced a 121% increase. The simple fact of the matter is that that these worldwide increases in asylum claims came from an increase in people fleeing war, persecution, and a new sort of asylum seeker – those being forcibly displaced by climate change.

If we really think that the impact of these few thousand people coming to our country via boat is a big deal, then we need to take a reality check. The 2000 people that claimed asylum in 2009 is only a drop in the ocean compared to the 60,000 visa overstayers (the majority of them British and US tourists) we get per year. So on one hand, there are 30 times as many unwelcome (mostly Western) tourists overstaying their visa, but no discussion about how to combat this issue. Another important statistic: the number of people who arrive on boat is only 5% of the total number of asylum seekers that come to Australia. So why do we not hear any policy discussion to address the 95% of asylum seekers that arrive by plane? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

If you were to believe our politicians, you would get the impression that Australia, compared to the rest of the world, is being overrun by refugees – that we need strong leadership and ruthless border security to repel back the tide of people wanting to come into this country. That’s simply not true. Consider this: in Pakistan now there are approximately 1.7 million Iraqi refugees. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Perth. It’s almost the entire population of Paris.

For any country to have to deal with an influx of unexpected foreigners is a huge task, but clearly there are many places out there that are doing it tougher than we are. I recently travelled to India to work with a group of Burmese refugees who have fled their country of origin to escape persecution. The Indian government is struggling to cope with the tens and thousands of Burmese refugees on top of their own population, many of whom experience unspeakable poverty. In a country where the average standard of living is so low, and where a caste system still permeates every aspect of life, which places outsiders like the refugees at the bottom of the list, there are some severe issues to be dealt with. Then, to come back to Australia to see once again the asylum seeker issue become politicised – it’s heartbreaking.

A recent cable revealed by Wikileaks shows just what some of the politicians think about this issue. In 2009, A “key Liberal Party strategist” told US diplomats that the issue of asylum seekers was “fantastic” for the Coalition and “the more boats that come the better”. Clearly, these aren’t human beings we are talking about anymore – they’re just pawns in a political game. A political game that became farcical when Tony Abbott, in a pre-election promise, stated that he would use a “boat phone”, where he would be personally responsible for deciding which boats were allowed to enter Australian waters, and which were to be turned back. Forget the fact that under international law, and under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, this would be completely illegal; what was showed is that human lives matter for very little when there is cheap point-scoring to be had. And, we can’t ignore the contribution of the Labor government either – despite putting to bed the implementation of Temporary Protection Visas and the Pacific Solution, Gillard predictably announced the offshore processing of asylum seekers in East Timor, in effect rehashing the same Pacific Solution that was widely derided three years ago. Perhaps sensing the absurdity of it all, within days, she had completely backed away from that idea.

So far, Australia’s policies on asylum seekers have attracted the ire of the United Nations, and the High Court, which ruled that the offshore processing of Sri Lankan refugees denied them procedural fairness.

But why is there this huge deal with boat arrivals in the first place? Why is it such a big issue? And why are there so many myths flying around? Off the bat I can think of two reasons, maybe you could add more in the comments. First, asylum seekers don’t vote, so there really is nothing to be lost by targeting a group of people who can’t politically defend themselves. Second, xenophobia, fear of the foreign, is one of the most simple and basic human emotions that we can experience, because it’s such an easy reaction to invoke. And nothing is more instantly appealing to our primal thoughts than something that is easy. Because essentially, our brains are lazy. This is why, as a study showed earlier this year, people tend to doubt others who speak with foreign accents – because it reduced “cognitive fluency”. It makes it more difficult for our brains to process. And, as far as our political leaders are concerned, the less brain work needed by the public to make decisions about this issue, the better.

It really is up to us to resist this politicisation of human lives, to rise above the depths that our political parties have sunk too. To recognise, as Steinbeck wrote, “the flare of want” in the eyes of people coming to this country and not instinctively bunch together to protect ourselves from outsiders. Outsiders who deserve our compassion and empathy, not our fighting words and tough talk. Because unlike the United States in the time of Steinbeck, we are not in a Great Depression, in fact by all accounts our economy is doing better than most. I’m always heartened by the groundswell of public support for issues like same-sex marriage and the apology. Previously, these were not issues on the agenda, but the sheer weight of public opinion was able to convince our politicians that this was something that we wanted change on (granted we haven’t seen that change in the first issue yet, but hopefully it’s not too far away). I haven’t felt that groundswell of public support for the asylum seekers yet. In general, the average Australian hasn’t stood up to defend them, and insist that the government repeals their inhumane policies towards them. We have a chance here to push past all the myths and get some real discussion going, based upon fact and not scare tactics. So, let’s get talking.

UPDATE: It didn’t take long for the Opposition to use this event as another launching pad to promote their “stop the boats” mantra. As this article was being published, Tony Abbott was using those exact words.

UPDATE 2: Have stumbled across this enlightening paper in further reading on this topic, where researchers analysed the well documented relationship between fear/anxiety and hostility/aggression, within the framework of immigrants. They found that individuals with a low sense of self-perceived social power (in other words those who viewed the outcome of their fate to be highly controlled by powerful others) more likely to be aggressive and hostile to outsiders. The reasoning behind this was that these outsiders posed a threat to their already damaged sense of power. Interestingly enough, out of all the groups analysed, young males had the lowest sense of self-perceived social power. This may shed some further light onto why we often see a knee-jerk defensive reaction to the thought of asylum seekers entering our country.

Addendum: For further reading on this topic, please read Brendan’s fantastic post here from back in May, in response to the Australian government suspending asylum claims. I also highly recommend this page where a whole bunch of asylum seeker myths are convincingly debunked. You can also follow this author on Twitter.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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24 thoughts on “The asylum seeker issue: pushing past the myths and fear

  1. Laura

    Weh made a great article. I think there are many significant and worthy points to reiterate, however I choose to bring attention to one statistic. That Pakistan is currently hosting 1.7 million Iraqi refugees. This is an incredible amount of lives and I think it is vital to really contemplate the broader perspective and reality of the global situation of refugees. This is just an example of one ethnicity within one country; there are countless other alarming examples of huge amounts of refugees living/surviving in developing countries. It has been said before and will be said again, Australia deals with a miniscule percentage of refugees, the bulk of refugees live in situations where the host countries are ill-equipped to deal with such strains of supporting large populations of people.
    I think we really need to accept the fact that the issue of displacement and exodus due to fears of persecution is a very real situation that devastates the lives of millions. The first step is truly accepting and understanding the mass of global refugees and that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, no matter how complex. Once we look at the root situation and accept and acknowledge the reality and broader perspective, then we can start to examine Australia’s fair responsibility, capacity, obligations and responsibility to protect. I also think there needs to be a greater breakdown of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality…take a look at this great Congolese refugee music group in Shepparton who have been embraced by the country town they now live in Victoria, bringing warmth and joy to the community. It is such a positive and warm example of how refugees can assimilate into Australian life, meaningfully contributing to the community while retaining their identity.

  2. Ai Leen

    If you look at the statistics of the small percentage who arrive by boat, I think it is quite obvious that there must be another reason why there is so much racket made about this category of peoples seeking asylum. The countries or regions from which these people who arrive by boat come, coupled with the potential for media sensationalisation of dark and desperate people on boats gives a very real possibility and great potential for the politicisation of and playing on xenophobia that is a) not an unnatural reaction and b) rife in our lovely country. It was hardly 40 years ago that Australia had a White Australia policy – it is not so unrealistic to suggest that our country is still in the process of learning to accept change in its cultural identity and make-up. I personally think this has a massive role to play in this issue.

  3. Janet

    Great article, Weh!

    There is so much valuable food for thought written within the comments as well. Rather than rehashing the important points that have already been made, I'd just like to add one more consideration to the discussion:

    Migrants who cross borders (legitimately or illegitimately) are not necessarily a burden – this 'single story' is unfortunately the dominant one, and as a result both the migrants and the residents of the country to which they are drawn may be loosing out. Perhaps the tendency to view them as a burden (on resources? on what? I'm not sure) is a product of our increasingly short-term perspectives, but I believe history can demonstrate otherwise. Allow me to offer another interpretation:

    As a Canadian, I can look to relatively recent history and note how my country has been enriched by the presence of those who dodged the American draft and illegally crossed the border … or by those who came with aspirations of removing themselves from the slave trade, … or by those who crossed oceans to escape the concentration camps of World War II ( … the list goes on, but you get the point). In each case, these 'asylum seekers' are now integral and important individuals within my country, and their stories are part of my history as well. I am grateful for what (I hope) we have collectively learned from their hardships – and I desperately hope that these struggles have not been in vain.

    So, while Canadians also continue to get up in arms over each new 'boatload' of refugees that comes to our shore, I think it would do us all well to a) show compassion as Weh has repeatedly urged, and b) step back from the immediacy and allow for a longer term view by which we might learn from those recent histories and strive to create a more hospitable 'global community'.

    Thanks again Weh, and to everyone who has contributed to the discussion.


  4. Ellie Wong

    Thanks for your really insightful article Weh. It was really refreshing to read amidst what is a polemic and heated debate. In response to the question you pose, why this issue, which is so little in terms of numbers, features so prominently in national debate, I think comes down issues of national identity. Deciding who comes into ‘our’ nation is a question of who ‘we’ want as Australians. There is no concern over UK visa overstayers because of obvious socio-cultural ties with the UK. However, asylum seekers represent an unknown – a potential threat. And this is why the issue is so political useful – because creating a threat or ‘other’ is the easiest way to gain support and unite people. It is easy to unite people around the issue of protecting ‘our borders’. It is the same reason why the ‘Muslim’ issue is so similarly useful to politicians. In some of the comments, certainly there is a sense of a fear of rapid increases in arrivals. Of a boat arriving every second day and 4000% increase etc.. This imagery conjures of ‘floods’ of people, which never seems to leave the tabloid media. I think fear clouds any kind of empathy or compassion that Australians certainly do have. Indeed, if I recall correctly, we are one of the most generation countries in the world in terms of private donations to overseas aid and charity.

    Another reason is the complexity of the problem. There is often no simple distinction between those who have engaged the services of people smugglers and genuine refugees. In response to your comment David,” …let's not forget that there are many, many more refugees waiting patiently in refugee camps in south-east Asia who haven't tried to smuggle themselves into Australia. Are those people ever in your thoughts?”. Refugees who have been stuck in protracted situations have engaged the services of people smugglers – but they should not be punished for this. Take the Rohingya – who are stateless and persecuted in Burma. Last January there was momentary uproar at Thailand for turning over emaciated Rohingya refugees on fishing boats. Some Rohingya refugees are making the decision to leave refugee camps in Bangladesh where they have been stuck for decades to work in Malaysia – and they are going through irregular channels and people smugglers because it is their only option. In the past Rohingya (up to half a million) have gone to work in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but as this has become more difficult, they have resorted to taking boats to Malaysia often via Thailand. It is not about jumping queues. A life in limbo in the camps where work, food, and other necessities are scarce, and violence is often rampant, is so bad for so long (decades long) that people feel they have no choice but to risk their lives at sea.

    Another interesting point raised is when can we draw the line in terms of the number of refugees that Australia takes in. As Weh alluded to in his article, developing countries take most of the so-called burden in terms of refugees. Solutions don’t just have to include increasing the number of refugees Australia’s accepts (although I think we can take in more people than we do), but the number of refugees that Australia assists in their host country. Another solution could be helping developing countries like India and Bangladesh to assist refugees in ways that are also beneficial for local populations – for these populations also require different kinds of assistance.

    1. David C

      I wrote a lot more than just about queue jumping. And this "racist/xenephobic" Australia stuff is getting old. Cliched and LAME! And I don't care if you or some of the others didn't actually write that, the connotations are quite clear. That's why I can't resist engaging in this argument. In short, Australians are compassionate, they're very compassionate. They just don't want to choke on that compassion.

  5. Chev

    So many issues so little time.

    Firstly I think we should be responsible and take refugees. The question is how many…..

    If people are banding around numbers and % increase this information is useless unless you are able to compare it to something. Firstly you should be using a yearly number for say 10-15 years and work out a trend. Looking at global changes is a good baseline to see how we compare. I personally am usually dubious taking stats/information from any website trying to prove a point. Taking stats from a pro/anti refugee website fits in this category as it is very easy to bend stats/interpretations.

    When saying the US take 45000 boat people, they have over 300million people. So if they have 15 times as many people as us, should they take 15 times the number of boat people….The point here is we need to look at ratios of lots of nations populations/boat people to compare.

    Do I believe we take refugees in? Absolutely.

    Do I believe we should let boat people in without any recourse or control? No. I am not worried about the number here as many have argued one way or the other, I am worried about the amount of stuffing around that happens and the politics.

    I do not think a boat person should be able to challenge refugee status in the high court of Australia. I do not believe we should have refugees trashing accommodation facilities or protesting on the roof of facilities. This shows no respect, and if refugees do show respect and are genuine refugees then we should welcome them with open arms be it 2 or 10,000. The only reason that the ~20 people who died made the press is that they crashed on an Australian Island. There must be lots of boats that sink with hundreds dying, not a mention in the press.

    enough rambling…..

  6. Brendan Rigby

    There have been some really thought-provoking comments so far, and it is great to see such active and open discussion about refugees, forced migration and human rights in the context of globalisation, international law and conflict. I do not want to rehash many of the arguement made here by Weh, whose defence of the right of any person to seek asylum by any means shows empathy, kindness and . However, I do want to reinforce the principles and virtue of his argument, which is on both 'hard' (international law, human rights) and 'soft' (empathy, compassion, morality) ground. I think this debate and people's perception of it (and of refugees) is too often entrenched in unshakeable opinions. We need to be open minded enough to change our views on issues when different, new and conflicting arguments and information is presented to us; to critically reflect on our own assumptions and biases, the information presented to us and the context of the issue.

    The numbers are the numbers and there should not be too much dispute over them. It is how they are used and represented, which is contentious and often misleading. International law, human rights, and Australia's responsibility under such is also very clear. I think what really underlies most arguements about NUMBERS are actually arguements around jurisprudence. That is, about the nature of international laws, their applicability, legal nature, enforcement and currency. These legal debates are ongoing and have been for quite some time.

    However, it must be acknowledged that, for the moment, every person has the right to cross the borders of their home country and migrate and/or seek asylum in another country. The 1951 Refugee Convention ( and numerous other conventions, additions and soft laws, guarantee this right. When, where, how are not specified. Why is , however:

    "A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

    This is key. Yes, there are obvious flaws and holes (such as the lack of 'gender' and 'sexual preference' as groups for those fearing persecution), but the fact that this exists is fundamental to protecting those most vulnerable in violent, unstable and unsafe circumstances. On what basis can we argue against providing protection to those who are fleeing persecution because they are Tamil or Hazara? Yes, they may not be going through the correct procedural process, but what if the procedures do not exist or are flawed and broken? Arguements of procedure are weak, heartless and concealing of perhaps darker prejudices. It is not a simple matter of going to the ticket office and lining up in a queue at the local UNHCR offices. If your wife was being sexually harassed and raped, your children dying from a lack of proper medical treatment and yourself physically assualted, would you go a queue for 2-3 years in New Delhi? I would not.

    What if I was persecuted in Australia because I was from an Irish Catholic family? What would I do? Where would I go? What would I do if I was imprisoned without trial because of my political opinions differed from the ruling party's? These are questions that we would all do well to ask ourselves. Empathy. Although I consider this 'soft' ground, it is by far the most powerful exercise to temper perceptions and encourage compassion. This is a difficult question to ask: why are we not showing enough compassion and empathy for asylum seekers? For those who died off Christmas Island? I do not think it can be reduced to xenophobia alone. Those who have different views from myself have legitimate concerns; about who these people are, why they have come here, what it will mean for our health, welfare and education systems, and for our national identity. We must not so easily dismiss their concerns.

    Migration is a natural part of human evolution and will continue to be. But, where forced migration fits into the picture is more difficult to discern. The forced movement of people has also been a feature of human evolution and history, but it is a feature that we have only recently (1951) began to address, regulate and legalise. Owen Barder wrote recently on migration and development and provided a neat historical overview (

    "During the mass migration between the middle of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of the first world war, about a third of Europeans migrated from their country of birth, mainly to America. Today levels of migration are proportionately lower, because nation states have imposed much tighter restrictions on the movement of people than at any time in human history."

    Are we going to keep imposing tighter restrictions on those who do not choose to freely migrate?

  7. Alex Jameson

    So what's the right answer? Why have boat arrivals gone up 4000% in the last two years? Has there been that much of a significant increase in war, conflict and the effects of climate change? War has been raging in Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan for years. If it's not the Australian policy (which I don't think it is, for the reasons Weh stated) why have the numbers gone up so significantly?

    Could it be that a culture of transnational migration is emerging? Every day, I talk to Ethiopians that know about the economic and political stability of the West/North and seek to go there, legally or not. I often think of the "Barcelona or Bust" slogan in the street of Dakar, an open acknowledgement that many people seek a "better life" in Europe. I solemnly believe that many, if not most people, that risk their lives to cross oceans and borders are doing so because of persecution, war and economic depression. But has the idea that the opportunities available in the West become so globalized that they inherently feed into the actions of migrants? I don't know myself, just floating an idea.

    These are a set of really powerful photos documenting migrants from Africa to Europe:

    1. wmyeoh


      You pose a very interesting question, one which I definitely can't answer. First of all, I think we need to be clear that although we are talking about a large percentage increase, we can't be too focussed on that because the numbers we are talking about are still (compared to worldwide figures) very low. When you have 161 people as your baseline figure (which seems almost like an aberration it is so low), any increase is going to seem huge. We need to put these figures in perspective and realise that even a few thousand pales in comparison to the few hundred thousand that other countries are receiving. It's a strange thing that I don't quite understand – what I referred to above as the "insular" nature of our nation. Why is it that we think we are so special and alone in this misfortune, and so quick to cry "why me?"

      I'm sure there is an awareness in many parts of the world about the "better life" that you spoke of. But I think that most of these people taking advantage of this would be surely seen as economic migrants, and not genuine asylum seekers.

      1. Alex Jameson

        If your family has been on food support in Ethiopia or Niger for ten years, there are no jobs, your children die of preventable diseases, do not go to school, have no chance at anything closely resembling a decent life, and your farm gets sold by the government to an Indian or Saudi agro-firm, but you are not "persecuted", where does that leave you when you try and make it to another country? You aren't genuine? Just another example of how complicated the problem is when looked at from different perspectives. My perspective is from living in a place where economic, nutrition, and health problems can be equal to that of "genuine asylum seekers" , and sometimes have, i.e. 1984 Ethiopian Famine. I have empathy for an "economic migrant" and an "asylum seeker". Unfortunately, opponents of both groups rights can drive a wedge between the two; not letting in either group and condemning both to misery. Perhaps after Christmas Island's latest tragedy they will no longer condemn them to Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoset

        Do we need a better and easier definition of an asylum seeker? One that can't be picked apart and used to deny rather then protect.

  8. Ryall

    I agree with you, thanks for writing this.
    Australia gets better all the time, because of people like you.
    It’s cool to care and be tolerant, it’s brave to speak out to help those less fortunate.
    Good on you mate.

  9. Thank you for your post Weh. David, it is my opinion that boat arrivals are born out of desperation. Refugee Camps do not work or are not available to everyone. I am not sure if you visit one already but they are horrible. The questions is …that there Australia and the Australian community signed an agreement to protect those in needs and assess their eligibility to refugee status. This agreement is to protect you and I as well, or our future generations, if we one day need it.

    I guess, if Australia does not want to be part of it, they should discuss with their community and openly say: Refugees are not welcome.

    The people tat wait patiently are the hosts of much poorer countries then Australia.

    I think the discussion is not numbers, but what is the right thing to do according to international law that Australia has committed itself too.

  10. David C

    And last but not least how does this open door policy the greens have work out with the "small, sustainable Australia" they're pitching. (I'm assuming you voted for the greens, I apologize in advance if I'm wrong)

  11. David C

    I appreciate how small the actual numbers of boat arrivals are, and that often repeated phrase "at this rate it would take 20 years to fill the MCG". But given the dramatic increase in boat arrivals in the last two years (I don't know the e…xact figures but I know it's a lot), how can you or anyone garauntee that it will stay the same. I mean (and seriously this is a question not a statement) where is the threshold of acceptability in your opinion? 10 000 a year? 50 000? 100 000? Would people's concerns still then be unreasonable? Therefore it's not all xenephobia and heartless, opportunistic tories causing the problem.
    And let's not forget that there are many, many more refugees waiting patiently in refugee camps in south-east Asia who haven't tried to smuggle themselves into Australia. Are those people ever in your thoughts? (there's this funny thing in Australian culture and waiting in queues)

    1. wmyeoh

      I don't think anyone could guarantee that the numbers of arrivals will not increase. I certainly can't. And I don't think it's unreasonable to be concerned that numbers are increasing either. It would be inhumane not to be concerned about why these people are being pushed to come to our country. What we do need to do though is to try and recognise what is causing this increase that we are seeing worldwide, and look at the root causes of them. I didn't have the time or space to mention all of them, but I alluded to factors such as war, persecution and climate change. What is unscientific is to think that Australia's asylum seeker policies are responsible in any way.

      As for the queue-jumping argument, there has been a lot written about this already, and much more eloquently than I could write, so I would hate to try and rehash arguments that I also support. Check out the comments made in the previous article by Brendan:

      1. David C

        Isn't this exactly what we talked about the other week? In the case of Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers it IS war and persecution that they're fleeing, and you, just like most other refugee advocates would not have the western world do anything to tackle these problems head on, nothing meaningful and effective anyway. It's like wanting to have your cake and eat it to. And again, how does this fit into the whole "small, sustainable" Australia agenda? And where do you think these refugees are going to stand on issues close to your heart like gay marriage. Most of these people don't even accept gay people let alone gay marriage!

        1. wmyeoh

          Re: Climate change refugees – there is a ton of stuff out there about this trend. Just doing a simple Google search I've found:

          Your argument is that we need to "tackle the problems head on" to reduce the number of refugees. You assume that I, like other refugee advocates, don't want to address the problems in other countries (another huge assumption). Needless to say this is another huge topic that I don't want to get into here, because it's going to go on forever and ever. Justification for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether we're being effective there, we are never going to come to an agreement this side of the new year about this one. Let's keep the discussion on topic here and at least understand that the war and persecution is causing the asylum seekers to come here, not Australia's border protection policy.

          "Small and sustainable Australia". I'm not sure why I have to defend the Greens' policies, or where this topic even came up in the article. But again, let's be realistic about the numbers here. Even if we take the 6,300 in two years figure to be correct, what percentage is that of the total number of immigrants over a two year period? In 2010-11 alone, we're planning on taking in over 168,000 migrants. So let's not let the media and politicians inflate the proportion of asylum seekers in our minds, let's keep it realistic.

          As for your comment on same sex marriage, let me just say that this is the xenophobia that I was referring to – the argument that people should not be let into this country because their values clash with ours. I do not for a second think that anyone can predict what the political views of any asylum seekers are, regardless of where they come from and what the dominant views of their nation and government are.

          1. David C

            You REALLY need to read this article, it perfectly sums up everything I've been trying to say.

      2. David C

        BTW I forgot to ask, which refugees are fleeing their country because of climate change? I've never heard of that.

  12. Allan H

    Imagine for a moment these people arriving by boat were Caucasians arriving from England. Would there still be the same fuss?

    1. David C

      At least on my part, there would be more fuss!

  13. Mike Smith

    Perhaps there are informed commentators out there who are not insular; who have access to and have analysed the facts about the surge in boat arrivals since 2008; and have decided that, for a number of political, moral and security reasons, the arrival of a new boat every second day, with passengers who deliberately destroy and jettison all identity documents, is not a situation that should be condoned. You allude to a 28% increase in asylum seekers in 2008. Thank you for providing some historical perspective to the debate. That increase has been followed, in 2010, by a 30% decrease in global asylum seekers (see European Union reporting). Compare and contrast this with the increase in boat arrivals since 2008. In 2008, 161 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat. In 2010, we are currently sitting at 6300. That's a 3900% increase. Wow, who knew that a asylum seekers would multiply by nearly 4000% in one year? Or perhaps this year's cohorts have been waiting patiently in Indonesia for just such as opportunity? Weh Yeoh On, if you want to talk statistics, that's fine, but quoting 2 year old numbers is ludicrous.

    1. wmyeoh

      Going by your statistics and logic, Australia has seen a huge increase in the number of asylum seekers because they have been waiting for a policy which is more compliant with their need to invade our country. Yet according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the average waiting time for UNHCR-assessed refugees stranded in Indonesia is 37 years, before they can come to Australia. So it hardly seems like Australia's policies have much impact on when asylum seekers come to this country. I would put it to you that people coming to our shores are doing so out of sheer desperation, not out of a desire to take advantage of our compassion. If you have seen the conditions that these people live in, perhaps you would be more compassionate to their cause as well. For the record, On is not part of my name – that's part of the date of when this article was posted.

      UPDATE: Having looked into this further, I believe some of the figures you've supplied are a little shady. The 6300 does not indicate the asylum seekers in 2010 alone, but from October 2008 to June 2010. See Scott Morrison's presser here:

      As for the 30% decrease in global asylum seekers – I would love to know where this stat has come from, because intuitively it goes against everything else that we are hearing. UNHCR Global Trends report 2009 (the 2010 version isn't out yet) reports a rise in the number of global asylum seekers for the 3rd year in a row in 2009.

      The other important thing to think about here is not so much percentage increases, but numerical increases. When the initial number is quite low (161), any increase is going to seem huge. But look back at the UNHCR report and you'll see that compared to other countries, our share is still extremely low:

      "The main destinations for asylum-seekers were South Africa (222,000 claims), the United States (47,900), France (42,100), Malaysia (40,000), and Ecuador (35,500).

      In comparison, Australia received 6,206 asylum claims last year."

  14. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Weh Yeoh and others. Weh Yeoh said: My new article up on whydev: the asylum seeker issue: pushing past the myths and fear. […]

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